TheoryFan

I <3 theory.

I spent most of my early years in graduate school reading Marx, Derrida, Butler, de Man, Lacan, Angela Davis. I wore the fact that I read more theory than fiction for my English Ph.D. courses as a badge of honor.

I even had a list of the most important theoretical texts in my moleskin notebook, and I would regularly engage in making theory lists like John Cusak and Jack Black do in High Fidelity. Top elucidations/critiques of Spinoza’s politics? Hardt and Negri’s Empire; Deleuze’s Spinoza: Expressionism in Philosophy; Negri’s The Savage Anomaly; Macherey’s Hegel or Spinoza. Top queer critiques of heteronormativity? Butler’s Gender Trouble (or was it Bodies that Matter? I go back and forth on that one); Warner’s The Trouble with Normal; Edelman’s No Future; Bornstein and Bergman’s Gender Outlaws; Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity. I’d mix and remix names and theories and critiques like I mixed My Bloody Valentine with British Sea Power and The Roots for my friends. I had very specific reasons why I liked Butler’s turn to mourning as something that bridged us in our very vulnerability in Precarious Life and very specific reasons why her non-dialectical yet curiously Hegelian tone in Undoing Gender really annoyed me. I also made very precise arguments about why Eagleton really didn’t get Derrida’s political turn in Ghostly Demarcations.

I stood in line for an hour or more for my little minute with Helene Cixous, in the hopes of having her sign my copy of The Book of Promethea (which is, by the way, quoted in Alan Moore and JH Williams III’s comic epic PrometheaMerging comics fandom with theory fandom? = BONUS POINTS!). One of the people standing in front of me wanted to talk to Cixous about astrology, since she briefly mentioned it in her talk. “I really liked what you said about astrology” this person said, with a curious air of anxiety, “I totally agree. I really think that astrology says a lot about truth.” (This is not at all what Cixous had said about astrology.) Both Cixous, who clearly wanted to get out of the conversation, and the person in front of me turned and faced me. “Oh! You’re a graduate student aren’t you?” the person exclaimed. “You should really get in this conversation! How often do you get to talk to Helene Cixous?!”

I was as terrified and anxious as you could probably imagine a 25 year-old young philosophy nerd could be, while meeting one of his idols. “I, uh, I guess I’d like to think that I don’t believe in it!” I mumbled…feebly attempting something resembling a joke. Cixous rolled her eyes and wrote in my book “Don’t Believe What You Believe – Helene Cixous.”

All of this is a preface to the, in my mind, important conversation surrounding hacking and yacking that Adeline Koh has recently resurrected. I can’t help but echo what Bethany Nowviskie, Brian Croxall, and Patrick Murray-John said in the comments regarding the matter. The issue, for me, isn’t that DH clouds its unspoken assumptions in a rhetoric of common-sense, it probably does and clouds them in other ways as well, but that two very different cultures with different unspoken and clouded assumptions are clashing. On the one hand, you have the software engineer culture which, as Murray-John mentions are annoyed by yack sessions “because they so often range over a wide array of interrelated topics and ideas (doing many things), and so are less likely to produce something actionable or working in the end (not doing it well).” And a theory-culture of critique that favors uncovering unspoken assumptions and following lines of thought wherever they go. Of course theory-culture has its own unspoken assumptions, resting on a fan culture that often clouds its embrace of name-dropping and overgeneralization in grand, moralistic, and sometimes condescending gestures whose effects are often unclear.

Shannon Mattern has recently described this phenomenon as a “theory economy,” in which theory trend-setters “build their brands, develop finely-tuned PR machines, and sell their wares to hungry audiences of graduate students looking for the next big thing.” She also mentions how theory almost is almost always equated with “Great Men,” and that many “theory conversations” (she mentions a specific listserv conversation, but I’ve seen this happen in many of the theory conversations I’ve been part of) “devolve into a string of condescendingly paternalistic lectures by hypocritical men who blindly adhere to their Theoretical models on principle.” Mattern suggests, at the end, that people should practice a form of theory that recognizes how it is developed by “women… and practitioners… and more often than not, groups of people who develop their ideas collaboratively, over time, through processes that likely won’t bring glory to any one of them or to any dynamic duos (e.g., Deleuze & Guattari, Hardt & Negri, Adorno & Horkheimer).”

I can’t help but see the parallels between a vision of theory cognizant of collaboration and Bethany’s explanation of the feelings behind the “more hack, less yack” ethos of THATCamp:

I think in many ways “more hack, less yack” got away from its originators, the founders of THATCamp, who offered it not as a commentary on DH and the broader humanities generally, but on the let-me-read-a-paper-at-you nature of typical humanities conferences. They were trying to push against this, by driving the community more toward unconference formats that encouraged teaching, problem-solving, and exchanges that felt more productive and inclusive to a broader segment of the academic community (including the #alt-ac crowd).

For me, Mattern’s essay and Nowviskie’s explanation of THATCamp’s ethos gives new relevance to the work I and the other organizers of THATCamp Theory are undertaking. Yes, it is important to understand unspoken assumptions. But we also need to use the collaborative, hack-oriented ethos of THATCamp to break through the paternalistic and condescending PR machine involved in theory-culture. Imagine if we could not only understand theory as a collaborative exercise, but actually engage in hacking theoretical models during THATCamp Theory. Imagine if the elements of a fan culture with true agency that Henry Jenkins discusses in Convergence Culture (“a changed sense of community, a greater sense of participation, less dependence on official expertise and a greater trust in collaborative problem solving”) could be applied to Theory fandom (209). What would theory be then?

 

Comments

  1. Good post, Roger.  I think that theorizing about DH should be step two in a dialectic with the work of DH, which (I’m on the side of the engineers on this one) needs to be engaged with the practical business of number-text-image-data crunching.  Data always need to be interpreted, of course, so I think theory could contribute to the practical work of DH by (of course) identifying and questioning the assumptions upon which DH models are built and seeing what happens when different models are applied.  I don’t think theorizing should be part of the DH field itself, though. What I fear is that DH will become vapid and cool like postmodernism in the 90s and will come to stand for nothing more than wearing lots of black, owning Macs, and throwing jargon around.  

    1. Thanks Jim. I agree. I’m not sure about DH becoming the new postmodernism, mostly b/c the people who are interested in DH are so varied. Some might wear black, but others work in libraries and museums. 

  2. Fantastic, Roger! I, too, see a lot of parallels between Bethany’s comments, yours, and mine. The whole “let-me-read-a-paper-at-you” mode of presentation — typically followed by the “let-me-stand-in-line-for-an-hour-or-more-for-my-little-brush-with-greatness” homage — is part of the whole “Great Man” machine that bothers me. One approach to “hacking theory” might be critiquing the models through which intellectual work — both theory *and* practice — is created, disseminated, discussed, etc. 

    1. That’s a great idea, Shannon. I’d love to see more attention to how intellectual work happens – not only on the level of individual scholars – but how it is funded, how decisions made at different levels of the University beurocracy contribute to the methods and content of that work. 

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